Have you taken your pain meds?
The text from Darren made me roll my eyes. Grudgingly, I reached for the pills and the bottle of water on the end table. It wasn’t the first message he’d sent, and wouldn’t be the last. I could already hear the conversation we’d had a thousand times.
“I don’t need to take it. My ankle doesn’t hurt.”
“You’re supposed to stay on top of the pain. Take the pill before it hurts.”
“Says the man who never wanted to take his after he’d been stabbed.”
“But I took them. And don’t change the subject.”
Of course we both understood how pain management worked, but we both resisted doing it properly for the same reason: it fogged our heads and made it impossible to work. I’d had to force him to slow down when he’d been laid up after a knife had collapsed his damn lung, and now he was doing the same for me while my ankle slowly healed. Especially since my latest surgery a week ago, he’d basically waited on me hand and fucked-up-foot, and I was probably going to kill him before my cast came off.
I texted him back, Yes, I took it, and then took the pill.
I’d barely capped the bottle when my phone vibrated again. A call this time, not a text. For fuck’s sake, now what?
But Erin’s name came up on the caller ID.
I smiled as I picked up the phone. “Hey, kiddo.”
I closed my eyes. The pain meds still made me slightly groggy, but I could focus on conversations as long as they weren’t too complex. “How’s your day going?”
“Good. I just wanted to let you know Ben and Casey texted me. They’re on the train, so I’ll pick them up at four thirty.”
Oh right. That was tonight. Of course I’d known that, but . . . Percocet. “Great. Looking forward to seeing them.”
“And dinner’s at six, right?”
“Yeah. You know how to get there?”
“It’s that Greek place down by the war memorial, right?”
“Yep. Darren made a reservation. We’ll meet you guys there, and Lisa will be along with Emily.”
“Awesome. We’ll be there.” She paused. “Zach had to cancel, though.”
“That’s too bad. Will he have a chance to meet your brothers while they’re in town?”
“Oh yeah.” The smile returned to her voice. “He’s going to meet them and me for lunch at work tomorrow.”
“Good. They can grill him and make sure—”
I laughed. “All right, all right. Anyway, I’ll see you tonight. Text me when you pick them up so I know they made it.”
“I will. I gotta go anyway—Mark’s got a huge stack of crap for me to do.”
“Okay. Love you, kiddo.”
“Love you too.”
She hung up, and I put my phone aside. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that her boyfriend—my orthopedic surgeon—couldn’t make it tonight. Zach had quickly become a regular fixture in her world, not to mention mine. In fact, I had a feeling he was part of the reason she’d accepted an offer of a full-time admin job at the precinct. It had started as an internship for one of her classes, but she was damn good at it. Detective Thibedeau in Internal Affairs had offered her the job a week or so after I’d gotten hurt, and while I wasn’t thrilled about her putting school on hold, maybe this wasn’t a bad idea given how expensive her tuition had been getting.
So now Erin was living with me, working at the same precinct, and dating the surgeon who’d put my ankle back together both times. After living two states apart for too many years, I wasn’t complaining. Even if she was just as determined to take care of me as both of our boyfriends were.
I’d been parked on the couch for a couple of hours, and my back was starting to get sore, so I decided now was as good a time as any to move around a bit. I pushed myself up, wincing at the dull ache in my foot. At least it wasn’t blinding pain anymore. The first surgery had pinched a nerve—a possibility Zach had warned me about—but they’d unfucked that during the second one last week. Now I just had to recuperate from the fresh set of screws, rods, anchors, chains, anvils, saw blades, and whatever else they’d put in.
Gingerly, I tucked my crutches under my arms and went into the kitchen. Hopefully Darren wouldn’t notice I’d forgotten to eat anything before taking my pain pill. If I ate something now, I wouldn’t get nauseated, and maybe I’d slip under his radar.
After eating some leftover Chinese food, I moved back to the couch, where I eased myself down next to the stacks of files and reports I’d been working on. Sort of. I was technically still on medical leave, but I’d been getting stir-crazy.
But if I’d thought I would get any work done, I was delusional. I sat down, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up to the sound of the front door opening.
“Hey,” Darren said as he walked into the living room. “How are you feeling?”
“Like I’m ready to be back on my feet.”
He chuckled and came around behind the couch. Leaning down to kiss me, he said, “Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll spend even more time—”
“Yes, thank you, Dr. Zach.” I curved my hand around the back of his neck and pulled him the rest of the way down for that kiss.
He chuckled, kissed me, then stood and shrugged off his jacket. “What time do we need to leave tonight?”
“Probably around five thirty, just in case there’s traffic.” I carefully hoisted myself up onto my crutches and followed him into the kitchen. My head was still thick with fog, but I was better than I’d been earlier. “How’s your brother?”
The sudden fatigue in his posture and expression answered clearly enough.
I hobbled over to him and touched his arm. “You okay?”
His lips tightened, and he nodded but didn’t look at me. “He’s in hell. There’s no two ways about it.”
“And you’re right there with him.”
“Yeah, but at least I remember who I am from day to day.” He sighed heavily. “Honestly, I think his lucid moments are the worst.”
I chewed the inside of my cheek. Maybe it was small comfort that Asher wasn’t having as many of those anymore. In the weeks since his family had transferred him to a home that specialized in Alzheimer’s patients, he’d deteriorated at an astounding rate. More often than not, when Darren visited, he’d come home devastated because Asher was . . . not Asher anymore.
“He was kind of there today.” Darren’s voice was a hollow whisper. “Like, he recognized me, but couldn’t figure out why I didn’t look fifteen. And he didn’t understand why Mom was so gray.” He rubbed his eyes. “Mom’s been gray for almost twenty years.”
“Jesus.” I wrapped an arm around him and kissed his temple. “I’m sorry, Darren.”
He sagged against me. Not enough to put me off-balance, but enough to let me know he desperately needed someone to lean on. Using both my crutches and the counter for support, I gathered him in my arms and, as much as I could, let him.
“He wants to die,” Darren murmured.
He exhaled hard. “When he’s with it—as much as he can be anymore—he tells me he wishes this thing would just finish him off.”
I didn’t respond. What could I say?
Darren was quiet for a moment too, before he whispered, “I just wish there was more I could do for him than sit back and watch him fade away.”
I shuddered and tried to ignore the inevitable thoughts about how it might be Darren in that position someday, with me watching him slowly crumble. It was quite possibly the only thing I could think of that would be worse than when I’d very nearly watched him bleed out during a sting gone bad. Even now, every time I saw that scar on the back of his shoulder, my stomach somersaulted.
Fuck. I’d only known him a few short months, but I’d been in love with him for most of that, and had been forced to think way too much about when and how he might die.
Closing my eyes, I held him tighter.
And damn, now I felt like a dick for being even a little bit irritated with him earlier. The very fact that he was trying to take care of me while handling our case on his own and dealing with his brother’s rapid deterioration—yeah, I was being a dick.
After a while, he drew back and met my gaze. “I should get a shower and change clothes. So we can go.”
I touched his face. “You don’t have to go if you don’t feel up for it.”
“No, I want to.” He smiled weakly. “I want to meet your boys.” With a playful if tired grin, he added, “And you could probably use the moral support.”
“Yeah, probably.” My stomach knotted. I was looking forward to seeing my sons. I wasn’t really looking forward to coming clean about a few things.
He probably saw the apprehension in my expression, because he pulled me into a light kiss. “You’ll be fine. And I’ll be there with you.”
“Don’t mention it.” He smiled—this time with some more life in it—and kissed me once more. “Let me grab a shower. Then we can get going.”
He left the kitchen, and I leaned against the counter. Okay, I definitely hadn’t been fair to him earlier. As much as I hated being fussed over and taken care of, I was grateful beyond words for Darren.
Darren and I were already seated when Ben, Casey, and Erin walked into the restaurant. One look at them, and I almost choked up, never mind choking on my nerves. Erin was right—it had been way, way too long since we’d all been together. I really needed to start putting more time aside for my kids.
Ben and Casey were twenty-four and twenty-one, and both looked almost exactly like I had at that age, though Ben had stopped at five foot eight and Casey still didn’t care for haircuts. Ben had lost more weight than I would have liked, but he was an adult—he looked healthy, so I wasn’t going to say anything.
“Hey, guys.” I got up as carefully as I could. “Good to see you both.”
They each hugged me in turn. I introduced Darren without giving much detail, and they both eyed him uncertainly, but they were polite.
“Sorry we’re a little late.” Erin shot Ben a glare. “Somebody insisted we go clear out to the airport to pick up his rental car first.”
“Hey,” Ben said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to get there after they closed.”
“It’s a rental car counter at the airport, doofus,” Casey said. “They’re always open.”
“Uh-huh.” Ben flipped open his menu. “Says the guy who’s never showed up and found out they aren’t always open.”
Erin rolled her eyes. “Well, you have your car. Now you can relax.”
We made some small talk about their trip, perused the menu together and probably made a mess of pronouncing some of the Greek terms.
“Let’s order drinks now,” I said, “but wait on food until Lisa and Emily get here. Which should be in about twenty minutes.” I glanced at my watch to be sure. Yep. Twenty minutes. “But I wanted to talk to the three of you first.” Technically the two of them, since I wasn’t saying anything Erin didn’t already know.
My sons exchanged glances. Casey’s eyes darted toward Darren.
“Okay.” Ben studied me. “What’s up?”
“Well . . .”
Under the table, Darren pressed his knee against mine.
I took a deep breath and folded my hands on top of the closed menu. “All right, so . . . your sister and I have been talking since she’s been here, and I realized I’ve not been communicating with you kids as much as I should. I want to clear the air about a few things, and then hopefully we can . . . you know, not be quite as much like strangers.”
They exchanged another glance, and both shrugged.
“Okay.” Ben seemed a little guarded, but not hostile.
“So what’s going on?” Casey’s eyes flicked toward Darren again. “You said you wanted to clear the air, so . . .”
Did they already know? Had they suspected something?
Might as well just put it out there and see what happened.
“First of all, Darren is my partner. At work and, well, not.” I put a hand between Darren’s shoulders, as if that might underscore what I meant so I didn’t have to spell it out.
“Oh,” Casey said.
Ben blinked. “So, you’re gay?”
Both of them studied me for a second. Then, in unison, “Oh.”
I swallowed. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah, of course.” Casey shrugged. “I wasn’t expecting it, but yeah, it’s cool.”
Ben nodded. “Yeah, same.” He cleared his throat and turned to Darren. “So, uh, how long have you guys been dating?”
Dating. I couldn’t even call what we’d been doing “dating.” Not in any traditional sense, anyway. Mostly working together, dodging bullets together, and realizing I was much, much happier when we were together.
“Uh.” Darren shifted. “Couple of months. I think?” He looked at me. “How long has it been?”
“Shit, I don’t know. Sounds about right to me.”
He laughed. “So much for knowing the exact minute, hour, and day we became a thing, right?”
I laughed too, running my hand up and down his back. “So we’ll say a couple of months.”
My sons chuckled too. They relaxed a bit, and seemed relieved that this was my big announcement.
Except it wasn’t. Not entirely.
I folded my hands on the table again. “Um, there is one other thing.” My gut lurched. No turning back.
I glanced at Erin, and she gave me a subtle nod and an encouraging smile.
Facing my sons again, I said, “I want to say upfront that it’s under control and my health is just fine, but . . .” I took a deep breath. This time it was Darren who put a hand on my back, and the reassurance was a godsend. I met each of my kids’ gazes in turn. “I’m HIV positive.”
Ben’s eyes widened.
I thought Casey might’ve paled.
“You . . .” Ben cleared his throat. “What?”
“I have HIV.” I swallowed again. “Like I said, it’s under control. I’m completely asymptomatic. My viral load is undetectable. It’s not going to go away, but it’s not—”
“How the hell—” Casey shook himself. “How did . . .” His eyes flicked toward Darren, and Darren squirmed uncomfortably.
“I’ve had it for a few years,” I said quietly. “Lisa and I both—”
“Oh my God.” Ben’s eyes were huge. “Emily? Does she have it?”
“No, she’s negative. She’s been tested repeatedly since she was born.” I shook my head. “She doesn’t have it.”
Ben battered me with questions, but it wasn’t an interrogation. He obviously knew a thing or two about HIV, and he wanted to be completely up to speed on my condition.
The whole time, Casey was silent. He pinched the bridge of his nose and didn’t say a word.
When Ben was apparently satisfied—rattled but out of questions, anyway—he took a drink and fell quiet. And Casey still didn’t speak.
I stole a look at Darren. He gave me the same encouraging smile Erin had.
“Casey?” I said cautiously. “Are you—”
His hand dropped to the table, startling all of us and rattling our silverware and glasses. “I can’t believe you’ve had this for years and never said a word. What the hell, Dad?”
Oh, hadn’t I had this conversation with Erin?
“I know. I should have said something. But I—”
“How did you even get it? You drilled it into our heads the whole time we were teenagers about safe sex and all that.” He glared at me, unaware or just not caring that he’d turned a few heads in the restaurant. “Do I even want to know?”
I pulled in a breath. “Look, I did some things I regret. And I—”
Emily’s voice snapped the tension, and the boys were instantly out of their chairs and crouching down, arms out as my youngest—their half sister—sprinted across the room.
“Oh my God, you’re getting so big!” Casey hugged her tight and kissed her cheek. “How old are you now? Ten? Eleven?”
She giggled as only Emily could. “I’m four and a half, silly!”
“Four and a half? No way! You’re way too tall for that!”
She erupted into laughter. As Lisa caught up, she said hello to the boys, and joined us at the table. Emily sat between Erin and Ben, and they quickly busied themselves with some crayons and paper placemats. I smiled fondly. Things had been rocky when I’d told my kids Lisa and I were expecting a baby, but all three of them had been madly in love with their little sister since the day she was born. Yet another reason for me to feel guilty—I hadn’t taken Emily to see them or had them come visit nearly as often as I should have.
As everyone settled in and we ordered our food, Casey shot me a look that said, This isn’t over.
My stomach somersaulted again. My appetite was pretty much MIA, but if I didn’t eat, Darren would have a fit, so I ordered a gyro and hoped for the best. While everyone caught up and chatted, Casey kept eyeing me uncertainly, but he said nothing. Nothing about my HIV status, anyway. He was perfectly chatty with everyone else, but there was definitely some frost between us right now.
Well, I’d been right that my kids wouldn’t be thrilled. I hadn’t expected them to be, but I had hoped I was worried about nothing. That they’d be, while not happy, willing to accept it.
I couldn’t read Casey. Was he angry that I had the disease? Or that I hadn’t told him?
But I didn’t ask, and he didn’t speak up. We carried on with dinner, and I just kept reminding myself there’d be time to clear the air with Casey in private later. This was a start. It hadn’t gone so well with Erin either, but once the shock had worn off, she’d been all right.
He would be too.
By the time dinner was over, everyone had relaxed somewhat. Casey was still tense, still obviously less than happy with me, but he hadn’t said anything more about it. Could’ve been worse, I supposed.
I paid the bill, and we all made our way to the door. Emily needed to use the bathroom, so Erin took her, and the rest of us went outside.
We chatted a bit more, but then Ben and Casey wanted to get back to their hotel since they’d had a long day of traveling. I hugged them both goodbye, and they shook hands with Lisa and Darren.
“Where’s Erin?” Ben looked around. “Aw, hell. We’ll see her tomorrow at lunch. Dad, could you let her know we took off?”
I nodded. “Will do.”
Lisa glanced back at the restaurant and scowled. “What is taking those two so long, though?” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll go get them.”
She went back in, and it was just Darren and me.
“Well,” he said. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“No.” I adjusted my grip on the crutches. “Could’ve been better.”
“Casey will come around. He probably just needs some time to absorb it. I mean, Erin came around.”
“Well, we should go. I’ll go get the car.” He kissed my cheek. “Wait here.”
Then he headed in the same direction my boys had gone. I closed my eyes and exhaled. The night had gone well. Not flawlessly, but I really couldn’t complain. Casey and I would talk later, and—
“Andreas.” Lisa’s voice turned me around. She stepped out of the restaurant, a puzzled expression on her face. “Did Erin and Emily come out already?”
“What? No, they—”
Tires squealed. Metal crunched.
What the hell?
I turned, and to my horror, Ben and Casey were getting out of their rental car, probably to inspect the damage the other car had done.
Some employees and bystanders hurried out the door, no doubt to see what was happening and maybe to help. In the commotion, someone bumped into me, and I stumbled. Then a foot swept my good leg out from under me, and I toppled, landing hard enough to send pain shooting through my bad ankle.
“Andreas!” Lisa grabbed my arm, but then she was knocked aside too.
“Drop the gun!” Darren shouted in the distance.
I scrambled, trying to get to my feet. I reached for a crutch, but my pistol was already in my hand. I didn’t even remember taking it out.
A bullet ricocheted off something. Someone shouted.
“Go get Erin and Emily!” I shouted to Lisa. “Keep them inside!”
Lisa darted back into the restaurant.
Tires squealed again.
More gunfire. Shouts. A car peeling out. An engine vanishing into the night.
And then . . . nothing.
Panicked shouts and murmurs, but otherwise, silence.
Someone helped me to my feet and gave me back my crutches. I looked up to see Darren and Ben coming across the parking lot. Ben was limping pretty hard, one arm tucked protectively against his side, the other slung over Darren’s shoulders.
“Oh my God.” I hobbled toward them as quickly as I could. “Ben?” I touched his arm, hoping my sheer panic didn’t make it into my voice. “Are you all right?”
He nodded, grimacing painfully. “Just . . . got the wind knocked out of me. When they tried to . . .”
My mouth went dry. “Where’s your brother?” I looked around as my pulse ratcheted up. “Where the fuck is Casey?”
Darren, still keeping Ben on his feet, shook his head. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t get to—”
“What?” The world spun around me. “Darren, what are you . . . Who . . .”
“Three guys,” Ben said. “They clipped the car, then came at me and Casey and—” His voice wavered.
“They got Casey into the car,” Darren said. “I couldn’t get to him. I’m sorry.”
“You did what you could.” I hadn’t seen much, but I had complete faith that whatever he could have done, he’d done. “Did you get a look at them?”
He frowned and shook his head. “Sorry. I was trying to—”
“Andreas.” Lisa’s voice was filled with a kind of palpable terror I hadn’t heard since the day her doctor had told her that she—and possibly our unborn baby—had HIV. “Emily and Erin are gone.”
The world dropped out from under me. My crutches were literally the only thing that kept me from crumpling to my knees. “What? They’re . . . What do you mean they’re . . .”
Reality started sinking in. Ben was hurt. God knew how close Darren had come to an injury or worse.
And . . .
I sank onto the bench. Twenty-plus years of cop instincts disappeared in a heartbeat, replaced by nothing but pure, bone-deep panic. I was trained for this. Enough that I could be calm to the point of near apathy in a crisis.
I wasn’t calm this time. I was closer to catatonic. I couldn’t move. Think. Breathe. Act.
Three of my kids.
Just . . . gone.And I had no idea what to do.
After too many years of putting his job first, Detective Andreas Ruffner is getting his priorities straight. He’s ready to spend some quality time with his adult kids, not to mention come clean about some things he should’ve told them a long time ago. And introduce them to his partner and boyfriend, Darren Corliss.
But in a heartbeat, a family dinner turns into Andreas’s worst nightmare. When the dust settles, one of his kids is hurt, and the other three have been abducted.
Andreas is going to find his kids, and nothing, not even a broken ankle, is going to stop him. Thank God for his sharp, level-headed partner . . . who has a crisis of his own pulling him away when Andreas needs him the most. As both men try to support—and lean on—each other, they get no closer to finding the kids. And the longer the children are missing, the less likely it is they’ll ever be found.